VICKSBURG, Miss. (AP) — The Mississippi River crested at more than 14 feet above flood stage in Vicksburg on Thursday, a slightly lower than expected level that eased worries about water potentially spilling over a nearby levee and inundating thousands more acres of farmland.
But officials warned that the flood was by no means over. The river was expected to stay at its crest for several days before beginning a long, slow retreat. It could remain above flood stage until mid-June.
"The crest is by no means the end of it," said Col. Jeffrey R. Eckstein, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Vicksburg District.
In one of the city’s hardest-hit areas, mechanic Chris Lynn has paddled a small aluminum boat across his flooded property every day to mark the water line on his shop. Water has crept close to his mobile home, though it has yet to go in.
"My son died in a car accident a few months ago, so this ain’t nothing. But to a lot of people, it is," he said.
Authorities had been worried for days that water might spill over the Yazoo Backwater Levee north of Vicksburg. But because the water was not expected to rise any higher, they did not expect to evacuate any more people. Some 2,000 city residents have already been forced from their homes.
Also Thursday, authorities reported the first person to die in Mississippi floodwaters since the mighty river began climbing out its banks last month in the Midwest — a 69-year-old man who apparently collapsed in the high water.
At least eight deaths in Arkansas have been attributed to flooding, but all of those happened in flash floods or Mississippi tributaries.
Walter Cook was pulled from the water Tuesday by two firefighters on boat patrol in downtown Vicksburg.
David Day, who owns a restaurant near Cook’s home, said Cook — a frequent customer — came in Tuesday asking for a lighter.
Day said he gave Cook a lighter and thought he was going home, but instead Cook went deeper into the water, which soon reached up to his waist. Day said he yelled a warning to Cook, but he kept going.
Soon after, Cook collapsed. He was pronounced dead Thursday at a hospital.
In Port Gibson, a community that Civil War Gen. Ulysses S. Grant reportedly said was "too beautiful to burn," few people could have been happier than Eddie Simmons to hear about the crest just north in Vicksburg.
Simmons, a retired logger, is recovering from hip-replacement surgery and can barely leave his bed. He has stayed in his home despite water swamping his front yard and creeping beneath his house. Visitors have to use a back door to get in because of the high water.
Simmons was confident his house would survive now that the river had done its worst.
"It’s God’s work. You’ve got to deal with him. You can run to high ground, but if God wants to come there, he can come there. You might as well stay put."
This year’s flooding has tested the limits of Mississippi’s $13 billion levee system as the river rose to levels not seen since the 1920s in some places.
Engineers pledged to fix any lingering problems with floodwalls, though there was little threat of any serious breaches, according to Maj. Gen. Michael Walsh, commander of the Army Corps’ Mississippi Valley Division.
In Louisiana, the corps began opening the Morganza spillway over the weekend as part of a plan to protect Baton Rouge and New Orleans from the river. That move intentionally flooded part of Cajun country, including areas that rely on the fish and oil industries.
As it passes through the Morganza floodgates, the water pours down a 20-mile spillway and into the Atchafalaya River. Homes along the river above the oil-and-seafood hub of Morgan City, La., will be vulnerable to flooding for at least another week.
The Atchafalaya was not expected to crest until May 25, and National Guardsmen have been busy shoring up Morgan City’s 20-foot floodwall to make sure it is protected.
Residents near the Atchafalaya basin live with the risk every year that the spillway could be opened. Many accept the potential dangers.
Each year, near the beginning of high-water season, the corps mails about 1,000 notices warning property owners and others with interests of the possible use of the spillway.
This year, a second notice went out May 6, as the likelihood of the spillway’s opening increased, corps spokesman Ricky Boyette said.
But the fact that the high water was expected in many places didn’t make it any easier to bear.
Next door to Simmons’ house, Johnnie Smith, a retired Vietnam veteran, stood on a sidewalk that disappeared into the murky water. Sandbags lined the front of his mobile home.
"I come down here every day to check it out. I couldn’t live here right now," said Smith, who’s been staying with a relative. "It smells too bad. It’s terrible."